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Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

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Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

4.5/5 (13 valutazioni)
582 pagine
10 ore
Nov 1, 2013


The mind contains the seeds of its own awakening—seeds that we can cultivate to bring forth the fruits of a life lived consciously. With Mindfulness, Joseph Goldstein shares the wisdom of his four decades of teaching and practice in a book that will serve as a lifelong companion for anyone committed to mindful living and the realization of inner freedom.

Goldstein's source teaching is the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha's legendary discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness that became the basis for the many types of Vipassana (or insight meditation) found today. Exquisite in detail yet wholly accessible and relevant for the modern student, Mindfulness takes us through a profound study of:

  • Ardency, clear knowing, mindfulness, and concentration—how to develop these four qualities of mind essential for walking the path wisely
  • The Satipatthana refrain—how deeply contemplating the four foundations of mindfulness opens us to bare knowing and continuity of mindfulness
  • Mindfulness of the body, including the breath, postures, activities, and physical characteristics
  • Mindfulness of feelings—how the experience of our sense perceptions influences our inner and outer worlds
  • Mindfulness of mind—learning to recognize skillful and unskillful states of mind and thought
  • Mindfulness of dhammas (or categories of experience), including the Five Hindrances, the Six Sense Spheres, the Seven Factors of Awakening, and much more

"There is a wealth of meaning and nuance in the experience of mindfulness that can enrich our lives in unimagined ways," writes Goldstein. In Mindfulness you have the tools to mine these riches for yourself.

Nov 1, 2013

Informazioni sull'autore

Joseph Goldstein is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the resident guiding teachers. He is the author of The Experience of Insight and Insight Meditation and has coauthored books with both Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield. He has studied and practiced meditation since 1967 under the guidance of eminent teachers from India, Burma, and Tibet. He lectures and leads retreats around the world.

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Anteprima del libro

Mindfulness - Joseph Goldstein



I FIRST BECAME INTERESTED IN Buddhism and meditation as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. After returning home and trying to continue the practice on my own, I quickly realized that I needed a teacher. This was in 1967, and at that time there were few Buddhist teachers to be found in the West. So I returned to Asia, first stopping in India to look for someone who could guide my practice. I went to Himalayan hill stations, unfortunately in winter when all the Tibetan teachers had gone south. After visiting different ashrams, I ended up in Bodh Gaya, a small village in Northern India, where Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

Anagārika Munindra, my first teacher, had just returned from nine years in Burma and had begun teaching vipassanā, or insight meditation. When I first arrived, he said something so simple and direct that I knew I had come to my spiritual home: If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it. As he explained the practice, I resonated with this direct looking at the nature of the mind and body, at how suffering is created and how we can be free.

The simple, although not always easy, practices of vipassanā are all rooted in one important discourse of the Buddha: the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Satipaṭṭhāna is often translated as the four foundations of mindfulness, but another, and perhaps more helpful, translation is the four ways of establishing mindfulness. In terms of awareness of the different aspects of our experience, this slight shift of translation has important implications: it gives more emphasis to the process of awareness itself, rather than to the particular objects of our attention.

Although I had read the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta many times over the years, I was inspired to conduct a line-by-line investigation of its meaning after reading a wonderful volume by Anālayo, Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. His clear analysis and deep understanding reawakened my interest in systematically presenting these teachings of the Buddha in their entirety.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening grew out of a series of forty-six lectures I gave at the Forest Refuge, a retreat facility for experienced practitioners at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. In the course of these lectures, besides making many references to the original words of the Buddha, I also drew on Anālayo’s book, teachings from many different Buddhist teachers and traditions, and stories from my own meditation experience. Throughout the lecture series and this current work, my primary emphasis has been on how to put all these teachings into practice as a way of transforming our lives and understanding.


MINDFULNESS IS SUCH AN ORDINARY word. It doesn’t have the spiritual cachet of words like wisdom or compassion or love, and only in recent times has it entered the lexicon of common usage. Growing up in the fifties, I had never even heard the word. And the sixties, of course, had their own unique vocabulary. But beginning in the seventies and continuing until today, mindfulness is coming into its own. It started with meditation retreats introducing the concept—and the practice—to an ever-increasing number of people. And then, through programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy; mindfulness programs in schools, universities, and businesses; and research in state-of-the-art neuroscience labs, the potential inherent in this capacity of the mind to be present, to be aware of what’s happening, is gaining widespread credibility and interest.

As just one example, all patients participating in the Duke Integrative Medicine program at Duke University are introduced to the body-mind relationship and the concept of mindfulness. Jeffrey Brantley, MD, founder of the program, said, Mindfulness is at the core of everything we do. We believe that the more mindful people can be as they face health challenges, the healthier they will be.¹

A few years ago, a friend pioneered a program teaching mindfulness practice to second graders. Here are some of the evaluations from these young practitioners:

Mindfulness helps me get better grades.

Mindfulness helps me calm down when I get upset. It also helps me with sports and to go to sleep at night.

Thank you for teaching mindfulness. Mindfulness changed my life.

Mindfulness really gets me calm.

Mindfulness is the best thing I have done in my life.

I love mindfulness.

Given the great flowering of mindfulness now taking place, it would be helpful to explore its roots. Where did this practice come from? What is the range and depth of its application? How can we understand its great transformative power to awaken us from the dreamlike patterns of our lives? Although this book is an in-depth guide to mindfulness practice and understanding, the range and depth of these teachings may open new possibilities and levels of subtlety for the application of mindfulness in our daily lives. Just as the hard science and engineering of space travel brought many new inventions to the marketplace, so too the depth of the classical understanding that comes from meditation can bring new practices and transformative insights to our lives in the world.

Over a dining-room table, someone once asked me to define mindfulness in just a few words. Phrases like living in the moment or being present give a first intimation of what mindfulness is, but asking, What is mindfulness? is a bit like asking, What is art? or What is love? Fully plumbing the depths of mindfulness requires time and exploration. There is a wealth of meaning and nuance in the experience of mindfulness that can enrich our lives in unimagined ways. This book is an attempt to mine these riches.

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness, there is a broad range of instructions for understanding the mind-body process and different methodologies for freeing the mind from the causes of suffering. We need not attempt to put all of them into practice and certainly not all at the same time. The Buddha himself gave different instructions, depending on the temperaments and inclinations of his listeners. But once we have a simple baseline of practice that both suits our temperaments and inspires us to continue, we can deepen our understanding by expanding the field of our inquiry. At different times, particular instructions in this discourse may touch us and enliven our practice in unexpected ways.

The Buddha introduces this discourse with an amazingly bold and unambiguous statement: "This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of nibbāna—namely the four foundations of mindfulness."²

Given the magnitude and import of this declaration—this is the direct path to liberation—it will be useful to explore this discourse in detail, using the Buddha’s own words to guide and deepen our understanding. And as we look at this sutta, we find that all of the Buddha’s teachings are contained within it. With each of these four ways of establishing mindfulness, the Buddha teaches different methods and techniques that liberate the mind. By the end of the discourse, he has laid out this most amazing and complete path to awakening. Different traditions of vipassanā might emphasize one or another of these exercises, but any one of them is sufficient to bring us to the end of the path. When we open any one door of the Dharma, it leads to all the rest.


A few words are needed here to explain the use of Pali and Sanskrit terms. Pali derives from the vernacular languages of Northern India at the time of the Buddha and in the following few centuries. Sanskrit was both the sacred and literary language of ancient India. Because the Buddha believed that the Dharma should be taught in ways that even the simplest people could understand, he gave his discourses in Pali.

As Buddhism evolved over the centuries, teachings and discourses from the later schools were written in Sanskrit, and many of the Buddhist terms we are most familiar with are in this language. The two languages are closely related, as you can see from these pairs of Sanskrit and Pali terms: dharma/dhamma, sutra/sutta, bodhisattva/bodhisatta, nirvāna/nibbāna. For ease of recognition, I sometimes use the more familiar Sanskrit forms, except when quoting or referring to Pali texts. A few times you may see both forms on the same page. In the text, most of the Pali and Sanskrit words are in italics, except for a few of the most commonly used terms.

Although the term monk is the usual translation for the Pali word bhikkhu, the commentaries have a much more expansive definition and one that empowers all of us on the path. In the context of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, bhikkhu is a term indicating any person who earnestly endeavors to accomplish the practice of the teaching: Whoever undertakes that practice . . . is here comprised under the term ‘bhikkhu.’³

In some of the translations from the suttas, I have substituted the gender-neutral term one for the masculine pronoun he. Although the Buddha originally gave many of these discourses to the order of monks, I felt that a more inclusive pronoun would be more useful for Western readers. Most of the sutta translations are from Wisdom Publications’ series Teachings of the Buddha, although many of the excerpts from the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta are from Anālayo’s book Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. His translation of the complete sutta can be found in Appendix A. Also, at times I have adapted different quotations, drawing on other translations to highlight particular aspects of teachings. These adaptations have been indicated in the notes.

Although this book follows the format of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and can be read through in sequence, most of the chapters are complete in themselves; it’s possible to find topics of interest in the table of contents and explore those particular chapters on their own.

As we read the Buddha’s words, one aspect of our cultural attention deficit disorder becomes apparent. I have found that in reading the suttas or listening to the discourses, whenever I come across a lot of repetition, my mind tends to skip over them, thinking, Yes, I’ve already read or heard that, and I hurry on to the next sentence or page. Perhaps the repetitions are simply a function of the oral tradition, but there is another possibility. Maybe when the Buddha repeats certain phrases over and over again, he is trying to tell us something: that these are important qualities of mind to cultivate and strengthen in our practice and in our lives. Can we read these words of the Buddha as if he were speaking them directly to us? If we do, they have the power to open new doors of understanding and new possibilities of freedom.




The Long-Enduring Mind

FOLLOWING THE DECLARATION THAT THE four ways of establishing mindfulness are the direct path to liberation, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta continues with a concise definition of the path, highlighting its essential characteristics. The Buddha first points out the four fields, or pastures, for establishing mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and dhammas (categories of experience). When we establish mindfulness in them, or of them, then we abide safely. When we’re not mindful, not aware, then we often get lost in unwholesome reactions, creating suffering for ourselves and others.

What are the four? Here, bhikkhus, in regard to the body a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind he abides contemplating the mind, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.¹

In this definition, the Buddha also introduces the mental qualities necessary for walking the path: one needs to be ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. Ardent implies a balanced and sustained application of effort. But ardent also suggests warmth of feeling, a passionate and strong enthusiasm or devotion because we realize the value and importance of something. When the Buddha says that a bhikkhu (all of us on the path) abides ardently, he is urging us to take great care, with continuity and perseverance, in what we do.

The great Chinese Ch’an master Hsu Yun attained enlightenment at age fifty-six, and then taught for the next sixty-four years. He died at the age of one hundred and twenty. He called this quality of ardency the long-enduring mind. It is what sustains and nourishes us through all the many ups and downs of practice.

Spiritual ardency is the wellspring of a courageous heart. It gives us the strength to continue through all the difficulties of the journey. The question for us is how to practice and cultivate ardency, so that it becomes a powerful and onward-leading force in our lives.


One way to cultivate ardency is to reflect on the purpose of our practice, realizing that the Dharma is a jewel of priceless value. When properly understood, the Dharma is the source of every happiness. Ajahn Mun, one of the most renowned meditation masters in the Thai Forest tradition, reminds us that understanding the mind is the same as understanding the Dharma, and that realizing the deepest truths of the mind is the attainment of awakening.

Another way of arousing ardency in our lives is to reflect on how rare it is in this life to connect with teachings that liberate the heart and mind. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the great Tibetan Dzogchen masters of the last century, reminded us of this:

Ask yourself how many of the billions of inhabitants of this planet have any idea of how rare it is to have been born as a human being. How many of those who understand the rarity of human birth ever think of using that chance to practice the Dharma? How many of those who think of practice actually do? How many of those who start continue? . . . But once you see the unique opportunity that human life can bring, you will definitely direct all your energy into reaping its true worth by putting the Dharma into practice.²

These reflections generate in us tremendous respect for the Dharma, for our fellow practitioners, and for ourselves. This respect then leads us to greater caring and ardency for each moment.


We can also strengthen the quality of ardor by reflecting on the transiency of all phenomena. Look at all the things we become attached to, whether they are people or possessions or feelings or conditions of the body. Nothing we have, no one in our lives, no state of mind is exempt from change. Nothing at all can prevent the universal process of birth, growth, decay, and death.

When we don’t deeply understand the truth of impermanence, we devote ourselves, our lives, and even our meditation practice to seeking and wanting other people, possessions, experiences. We get caught up in all the appearances of saṃsāra, the rounds of birth and death, and solidify our sense of self in the process. There is no peace.

The following is an excerpt from The Life of Shabkar, a book of teachings by an eighteenth-century wandering Tibetan yogi, and is a powerful testament to the truth of change:

Another day, I went for some fresh air to a meadow covered with flowers. . . . While singing and remaining in a state of awareness of the absolute view, I noticed among the profusion of flowers spread out before me one particular flower waving gently on its long stem and giving out a sweet fragrance. As it swayed from side to side, I heard this song in the rustling of its petals. . . .

Listen to me, mountain dweller: . . .

I don’t want to hurt your feelings,

But, in fact, you even lack awareness

Of impermanence and death,

Let alone any realization of emptiness.

For those with such awareness,

Outer phenomena all teach impermanence and death.

I, the flower, will now give you, the yogi,

A bit of helpful advice

On death and impermanence.

A flower born in a meadow,

I enjoy perfect happiness

With my brightly colored petals in full bloom.

Surrounded by an eager cloud of bees,

I dance gaily, swaying gently with the wind.

When a fine rain falls, my petals warp around me;

When the sun shines I open like a smile.

Right now I look well enough,

But I won’t last long.

Not at all.

Unwelcome frost will dull the vivid colors,

Till turning brown I wither.

Thinking of this, I am disturbed.

Later still, winds —

violent and merciless —

will tear me apart until I turn to dust. . . .

You, hermit, . . .

Are of the same nature.

Surrounded by a host of disciples,

You enjoy a fine complexion,

Your body of flesh and blood is full of life.

When others praise you,

you dance with joy; . . .

Right now, you look well enough.

But you won’t last long.

Not at all.

Unhealthy ageing will steal away

Your healthy vigor;

Your hair will whiten

And your back will grow bent. . . .

When touched by the merciless hands

Of illness and death

You will leave this world

For the next life. . . .

Since you, mountain-roaming hermit,

And I, a mountain-born flower,

Are mountain friends,

I have offered you

These words of good advice.

Then the flower fell silent and remained still. In reply, I sang:

O brilliant, exquisite flower,

Your discourse on impermanence

Is wonderful indeed.

But what shall the two of us do?

Is there nothing that can be done? . . .

The flower replied:

. . . Among all the activities of sāṃsara,

There is not one that is lasting.

Whatever is born will die;

Whatever is joined will come apart;

Whatever is gathered will disperse;

Whatever is high will fall.

Having considered this,

I resolve not to be attached

To these lush meadows,

Even now, in the full glory of my display,

Even as my petals unfold in splendor . . .

You too, while strong and fit,

Should abandon your clinging. . . .

Seek the pure field of freedom,

The great serenity.³


The third reflection that arouses ardor in our practice is the understanding of the law of karma. This is the fundamental and essential understanding that all of our volitional actions—of body, speech, and mind — bear fruit depending on the motivation associated with them. Actions rooted in greed, hatred, or ignorance bring unpleasant results. Actions rooted in nongreed, nonhatred, and nondelusion bring many different kinds of happiness and wellbeing.

According to the law of karma, the only things that can be said to truly belong to us are our actions and their results; the results of our actions follow us like a shadow, or, to use an ancient image, like the wheel of the oxcart following the foot of the ox. This principle is so fundamental and far-reaching that it was emphasized again and again by the Buddha and by the great enlightened beings up until the present. The very first lines of the Dhammapada highlight this understanding:

Mind is the forerunner of all things. Speak or act with an impure mind, suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

Mind is the forerunner of all things. Speak or act with peaceful mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves.

There is the famous statement of Padmasambhava, the great Indian adept who brought Buddhism to Tibet: Though my view is as vast as the sky, my attention to the law of karma is as fine as a grain of barley flour. The Dalai Lama has said that if he had to choose whether to emphasize emptiness or karma in his teaching, as important as the understanding of emptiness is, he would emphasize the teachings of karma. And finally, the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim summed up the integration of emptiness and karma with this quintessential Zen statement: There is no right and no wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong.

But it is not enough to simply have this understanding of karma; we need to practice applying it in our lives. As we’re about to act, or when thoughts or emotions are predominant, do we remember to investigate and reflect on our motivation? Do we ask ourselves, Is this act or mind state skillful or unskillful? Is this something to cultivate or abandon? Where is this motivation leading? Do I want to go there?


Clearly Knowing

Cultivating Clear Comprehension

SAMPAJAÑÑA IS THE PALI TERM for the second quality of mind the Buddha emphasized in the opening paragraphs of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. It is usually translated as clearly knowing, clear comprehension, or fully aware. It is the ability to clearly comprehend what is taking place, and it comprises the investigation and wisdom aspects associated with mindfulness. We will take a closer and more detailed look at this quality of clear knowing in chapter 9: Mindfulness of Activities.

Cultivating clear comprehension, knowing what we’re doing and why, is a profound and transforming practice. It highlights the understanding that mindfulness is more than simply being present. With clear comprehension, we know the purpose and appropriateness of what we’re doing; we understand the motivations behind our actions. So often we find ourselves in the middle of an action before we quite know how we got there. Have you ever found your hand in the refrigerator without having been clearly aware of the desire, the decision, or the appropriateness of the act? When we act in full awareness, of even small things, it’s possible to notice the motivation and then to consider: is this motivation, this action, skillful or not, useful or not? In the time of the Buddha, there were a few monks living together in a forest grove. The Buddha went to them and asked if they were all living harmoniously. Anuruddha, one of the great disciples of the Buddha, replied, Why should I not set aside what I wish to do, and do what these venerable ones wish to do? And each of the other monks replied in just the same way. Clearly knowing what we’re doing allows us the opportunity to be living lovingkindness, rather than just practicing it on the meditation cushion.

Awareness of motivation plays a central role in the path of liberation. And as we settle into a growing awareness of ourselves, we begin to realize that our practice is not for ourselves alone, but can be for the benefit and happiness of all beings. How does our practice benefit others? How does feeling our breath or taking a mindful step help anyone else? It happens in several ways. The more we understand our own minds, the more we understand everyone else. We increasingly feel the commonality of our human condition, of what creates suffering and how we can be free.

Our practice also benefits others through the transformation of how we are in the world. If we’re more accepting, more peaceful, less judgmental, less selfish, then the whole world is that much more loving and peaceful, that much less judgmental and selfish. Our mind-body is a vibrating, resonating energy system. Of necessity, how we are affects everyone around us. On a boat in the middle of a great storm, one wise, calm person can bring everyone to safety. The world is like that boat, tossed by the storms of greed and hatred and fear. Can we be one of those people who help to keep it safe? The Buddha gave this charge to his first sixty enlightened disciples:

Go forth, O Bhikkhus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit and happiness of gods and men. Let not two go by one way. Preach, O Bhikkhus, the Dhamma, excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end. . . . Proclaim the Holy Life, altogether perfect and pure.¹

We can follow, to some extent, in their footsteps.



The Gateway to Wisdom

MINDFULNESS, THE THIRD QUALITY OF mind the Buddha refers to, is the translation of the Pali word sati, and it holds a central place in every Buddhist tradition. It is what makes any spiritual path possible. Mindfulness has several meanings and functions, all of which are key to the growth of wisdom. Understanding this richness of meaning opens up new potential for its power to transform our lives.


The most common understanding of mindfulness is that of present-moment awareness, presence of mind, wakefulness. This is the opposite of absentmindedness. Whenever we’re lost or confused about what to do, we can simply come back to the present-moment experience.

After one of my public talks, a woman who had been on several retreats came up to me and said she had recently been on a cruise, and in her room was a map of the ship with an arrow and caption saying, You are here. She said that for the rest of the voyage, wherever she was and whatever she was doing, those words became the reminder to simply be present: You are here.

Mindfulness in this aspect is the quality of bare attention, of noninterfering awareness, which we’re familiar with from our enjoyment of music. When we’re listening to the music, our minds are open and attentive, not attempting to control what comes next, not reflecting on the notes just past. There is a great power when we learn how to listen; it is this quality of receptivity that allows intuitive wisdom to arise. An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa what she says to God when she prays. I don’t say anything, she replied. I just listen. Then the interviewer asked her what God says to her. He doesn’t say anything, said Mother Teresa. He just listens. And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.¹


On another level, and one which we don’t often associate with mindfulness, sati means remembering, and it refers to the practice of wholesome recollection that supports and energizes us on this path of awakening. In the texts, these recollections include the virtues of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as one’s own generosity and ethical conduct.

Reflecting on the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha helps arouse confidence and faith in the mind, enlarging the context of our own particular struggles. We remember that all the ups and downs of practice are part of a much larger journey. On the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he overcame the armies of Māra, the forces of desire and aversion, restlessness and conceit. And every time we confront these very same forces in our own minds, we also are sitting under the Bodhi tree of awakening. We understand that the Bodhisattva’s struggle is our own.

It enlarges our perspective when we consider the magnitude of what it means to overcome the habits of seduction that keep us narrow-minded and closed-hearted. When we practice these liberation teachings of the Buddha, we are practicing a path of purification that the Buddha discovered and that so many others have accomplished. One of the most inspiring phrases to me is the traditional declaration of awakening spoken by women and men who have completed the journey: done is what had to be done. Recollecting the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha reminds us that awakening is possible for us as well. Mindfulness as remembering also includes reflection on our commitment to ethical conduct (sīla, in Pali). This may not be something we often do, but when we acknowledge our practice of sīla, it strengthens our self-confidence and self-respect. It reminds us that we can indeed train the mind, that we can discern which actions are wholesome and which are not.

Of course, sometimes our Western habit of self-judgment jumps into the mix. One time, when I was practicing in Burma and going through a long stretch of difficulty, my teacher, the Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Paṇḍita, suggested that I contemplate my sīla. He said this as a way of encouraging me, to brighten my mind and arouse more joy. But when I heard, contemplate your sīla, my first thought was, What did I do wrong?

For most of us, there may well be ethical lapses of one kind or another. But our willingness to see them and recommit to nonharming both others and ourselves keeps us moving forward. As the Buddha said, It is growth in the Noble One’s discipline when one sees one’s transgressions as such and makes amends in accordance with the Dharma by undertaking restraint in the future. This is a much healthier and more beneficial approach than being weighed down by guilt over past actions.


Mindfulness also works to balance what the Buddha called the five spiritual faculties: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. And one way we can understand our entire spiritual journey is as the strengthening and balancing of these faculties. Mindfulness makes us aware when any of them are deficient or in excess; for example, it balances faith and wisdom, energy and concentration. When we have too much faith, we can become dogmatic, attached to our own views. And we can see all too often how this blind belief leads to so much conflict and suffering in the world.

When faith is not balanced with wisdom, we can also become overly enthusiastic about our meditation experiences. There is a state called pseudo-nirvāna. This is when our insight is developing, but in our enthusiasm we forget to be mindful, and then, because of our attachment to these very states, they become corruptions of insight. Sayadaw U Paṇḍita would often ask us as we described different states, Did you note it? Mindfulness was the true measure of our practice, not what particular experience we were having.

On the other side, we can also get attached to some understanding or insight and stay satisfied with that. In this case, we are weak in the faith that opens us to what is beyond our current level of understanding. Understanding without faith can keep us enmeshed, often unknowingly, in wrong views. In the same way, effort and concentration need to be in balance. Too much effort without enough concentration simply leads to restlessness and agitation, while an excess of concentration without enough energy leads to sloth and torpor. It is mindfulness that keeps all these factors in balance.


Besides balancing the spiritual faculties, mindfulness acts as the guardian of the sense doors, because it keeps us aware of what is arising through the senses and helps us to not get lost in the proliferation of desires. When mindfulness is present, we abide more peacefully in our lives.

Mindfulness of seeing, for example, can be particularly helpful in the midst of daily life situations. I had an illuminating experience walking down Fifth Avenue in New York, looking in store windows and seeing many seductive things for sale. After some time, I noticed that my mind was continually reaching out with desire for one thing after another. Although this reaching out was enjoyable in one way, when I looked more deeply, I saw that the mind filled with wanting is not at ease; there is an ongoing edge of agitation. It happened that, some weeks later, I found myself on the same street, but this time for some reason there was more mindfulness. I was seeing everything in the store windows, but I was just seeing. It was a much happier and more peaceful way of being.

Mindfulness also serves to protect the mind from other unskillful thoughts and emotions. Without mindfulness, we simply act out all the various patterns and habits of our conditioning. Ajahn Sumedho, one of the senior Western monks of the Thai Forest tradition, quite aptly pointed out that, contrary to some popular beliefs, our aim should be not to follow the heart but to train the heart. All of us have a mix of motivations; not everything in our hearts is wise or wholesome. The great power of mindful discernment allows us to abandon what is unwholesome and to cultivate the good. This discernment is of inestimable value for our happiness and wellbeing.

In a discourse called The Two Kinds of Thoughts, the Buddha described different aspects of this supervising and guarding function of mindfulness. These aspects can help us understand some of the nuances of mindfulness and how to guard our minds from straying into unwholesome mind states.

"Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes.’ Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will, and thoughts of non-cruelty.

As I abided thus, diligent, ardent and resolute, a thought of sensual desire arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of sensual desire has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to other’s affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.’ When I considered: ‘This leads to my own affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered, ‘This leads to others’ affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to the affliction of both,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna,’ it subsided in me. Whenever a thought of sensual desire arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.²

The Buddha applied the same application of mindfulness to thoughts of ill will and cruelty. With recurring unskillful thoughts, we need an actively engaged mindfulness, because, as the Buddha pointed out later in this discourse, whatever we frequently think of and ponder, that will become the inclination of our minds. Mindfulness has the power to show us what kinds of thoughts are arising, and in the case of unskillful ones, what we may have unknowingly been inclining our minds toward. The simple reflection that these thoughts actually do lead to one’s own and others’ affliction and difficulty, away from wisdom and awakening, is an effective tool to use in those times rather than being just a phrase to read.

With wholesome states of mind, mindfulness takes a different form. We don’t need to be quite so actively engaged. In fact, doing so would only lead to disturbance of mind and body. The Buddha likened this aspect of mindfulness to a cowherd guarding the cows after the crops have been safely harvested, when active vigilance regarding the cows grazing is no longer necessary:

"Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been brought inside the villages, a cowherd would guard his cows while staying at the root of a tree or out in the open, since he needs only to be mindful that the cows are there; so too, there was need for me only to be mindful that those states were there.

Tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was tranquil and untroubled, my mind concentrated and unified.³

In our practice of abiding ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, we learn to find the appropriate balance between active and receptive, doing and nondoing.


These different skillful means can also help us understand how different Buddhist traditions speak of mindfulness, pointing to further nuances in our own practice. Each tradition uses its own language and similes, but they are all pointing to different aspects of our experience.

One aspect is mindfulness as a cultivated state, where we are making an effort to stay attentive. We need this kind of mindfulness to bring us back to the moment. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, one of the great Dzogchen masters of the last century, said, There is one thing we always need, and that is the watchman named Mindfulness, the guard who is on the lookout for when we get carried away in mindlessness.

In the Dzogchen tradition, this is called fabricated mindfulness, and is similar, perhaps, to what in the Theravāda Abhidhamma is called prompted consciousness. This is when, either by reflection or determination of the will, we deliberately endeavor to generate a certain state. There is another kind of mindfulness that is unprompted. When it is well cultivated, it arises spontaneously through the force of its own momentum. No particular effort is required. It’s all just happening by itself. In this state of effortless awareness, we can further discern the presence or absence of a reference point of observation, a sense of someone observing or being mindful.

Dzogchen teachings also speak of unfabricated mindfulness, which, in that tradition, refers to the innate wakefulness of the mind’s natural state. It is called unfabricated, because according to these teachings, this mindfulness is not something we have created. Rather, it is like the capacity of a mirror to reflect what comes before it. That capacity is in the very nature of the mirror itself. So from this perspective, it’s not something we need to get or develop, but rather something we need to recognize and come back to.

Although teachings in the different traditions may have different metaphysical underpinnings, rather than get caught up in philosophical debate, we can see them all simply as skillful means to free the mind. All these different aspects of mindfulness work in harmony. It is a rare person who can simply abide uninterruptedly in unprompted or unfabricated mindfulness, without the support of appropriate effort. But as our efforts bear fruit, we do experience times of great ease, when our practice is to simply let go, relax, and surrender into the natural unfolding.

About this mind . . . in truth it isn’t really anything. It’s just a phenomenon. Within itself it’s already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful these days is because it follows moods. . . . Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering, gladness and sorrow, but the mind’s true nature is none of those things. That gladness or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things, it forgets itself, then we think that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever. But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful . . . Our practice is simply to see the Original Mind. So we must train the mind to know those sense impressions, and not get lost in them. To make it peaceful. Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through.

In chapter 25: Mindfulness, we will further examine mindfulness and how it functions as one of the seven factors of awakening.



The Collected Nature of Mind

IN HIS DEFINITION OF SATIPAṬṬHĀNA, the Buddha urges us to contemplate the four fields or foundations of mindfulness—body, feelings, mind, and dhammas—free from desires and discontent with regard to the world. Free from desires and discontent refers to samādhi, the qualities of concentration, composure, and unification of mind that occur when the mind is free of the desires and discontents that so often arise.

There are different ways of developing concentration. Ajahn Sucitto, an English monk in the Thai Forest tradition, speaks of samādhi developing naturally through enjoying embodied presence, settling back into the body, and allowing the stress and tensions to unravel through simply being aware of what presents itself. He says,

Receiving joy is another way to say enjoyment, and samādhi is the act of refined enjoyment. It is based in skillfulness. It is the careful collecting of oneself into the joy of the present moment. Joyfulness means there’s no fear, no tension, no ought to. There isn’t anything we have to

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  • Goldstein is the most reliable, relatable, well-informed guide to Buddhist theory and practice in the Theravada tradition. All that mindfulness and meditation stuff in the pop culture now? Goldstein has been steeped in the original Indian sources and teaching it for decades.

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